The building of a Muslim Community Center in an abandoned building two blocks from the site of New York’s former World Trade Center has become the latest controversy in America’s long fought religious wars. The construction of the center, often referred to as a mosque, has become the latest rallying issue for the Christian right, Tea Party proponents and Republican operatives in their war to impose moralistic and corporatist values on America.
It is still too early to know how the Muslim Center issue will be resolved, but it is clear that the rantings of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Abe Foxman (of the Anti-Defamation League), among others, have played an important role in pushing this local issue onto the center-stage of national politics. Since the horrendous attacks of 9/11, Muslims in general and American Muslims in particular have been the targets of an undeclared religious war promoted by Christian fundamentalists and self-serving Republicans. For some among these religious zealots, Islam is a threat to their belief that the U.S. is a white Protestant nation. Over the last four centuries, Quakers, Mormons, Catholics, Jews and many others have been targets of religious persecution, often the victims of imprisonments, hangings, lynchings and other acts of violence.
Rightwing ranters might well not know the history of religious intolerance in America, but they are surely aware that they are fueling a deep-seated rage among a certain scary segment of the Christian populace. This round in the ongoing religious culture wars has yet to explode into the ugly violence that took place in the aftermath of 9/11, and one can only hope that the current controversy will not lead to attacks on Muslims.
But sadly, like the attacks that followed 9/11, rightwing ranters like Palin and Gingrich will act “shocked” by the violence if it occurs and will claim innocence concerning their roles fomenting it. With a knowing sneer, they will wash their hands of the blood they have caused and seek out other innocent victims.
In an excellent article on TomDispatch, Stephen Salisbury details the current Manhattan Muslim Center controversy and the spreading anti-Muslim hysteria being whipped up around the country over the opening of new local mosques. As Salisbury opines, “The angry ‘debate’ over whether the building should exist has a kind of glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of something-very-bad-about-to-happen.” (Tomdispatch.com, August 11, 2010)
Salisbury discusses the ongoing protests against mosques also taking place in New York’s Brooklyn and Staten Island, as well as in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Wisconsin. He connects these controversies to the headline-grabbing opportunist comments by Palin (in true Palin-speak, “peaceful Muslims” need to “refudiate” the Center) and Gingrich (who calls on Saudi Arabia to open churches and synagogues).
He also draws attention to the pernicious role played by Rick Lazio, New York State Republican gubernatorial candidate, who assails the Center as subverting the right of New Yorkers “to feel safe and be safe.” Because New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Attorney General (and likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Andrew Cuomo have come out in support of the Muslim Center, it will likely become a major issue in the November election.
And most importantly, Salisbury provides an invaluable overview of the anti-Muslim campaign that arose in the wake of 9/11, reminding readers just how alarmingly vicious good-old Christian love can be.
Part of the “glitch-in-the-Matrix feel” that Salisbury notes is the absence of a recognition that the current Muslim Center controversy is part of a long history of religious intolerance in American.
In the days following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, in a spontaneous and unscripted statement blurted out the unspoken truth that guided the United States’ initial military counter-attack campaign in Afghanistan: "This crusade," he said, "this war on terrorism." While Bush’s admission was later repudiated and subsequently all but disappeared from the public discourse, it defined the unstated goal of the ultra-reactionary Christians who were his core-constituency and knew full well what he meant.
At the heart of Bush’s crusade agenda was an invocation of the "shock-and-awe" tradition that defined religious wars since the grand crusades of the Middle Ages, and an acknowledgement that the tactic needed to be applied in Afghanistan. The grand crusades waged by the Roman Church were against Muslims and Jews to capture and hold ancient Jerusalem and the Holy Lands, and to defeat Orthodox or Eastern Christianity. Many perished. Similar crusaders were waged against Christian heretics, including early Protestants, and done so in the name of an absolutist god.
This tradition was brought over to the New World with the Pilgrims and other early British settlers. The worst and most sustained form of religious war in America has been waged against the Native people. For all the annual white-washing that takes place at Thanksgiving Day parades, early Puritans fought the Pequot Indians in Eastern Connecticut until 1637 when the General Courts of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Colony launched a war of extermination against them. (Native people found that the Pilgrims stank, literally; Europeans rarely bathed, believing it unhealthy, and seldom were naked, believing it immoral.) The white Christian race and religious crusade against Native North American people persisted for centuries.
Pilgrims also imposed religious intolerance on themselves. Early Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers were aligned with the Church of England and looked badly upon those who contested their orthodoxy. Those challenging Calvinist dogma were subject to banishment, whipping, branding, and even hanging. Early leaders like Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished. Early Quaker settlers in Plymouth were also banished and four were hanged publicly.
Over the subsequent centuries, Americans have witnessed repeated bouts of religious intolerance. Not surprisingly, these episodes were often accompanied by the same shrill rhetoric we find shouted today by those opposing the Muslim Center.
The Know Nothing movement grew out of the Second Great Awakening or the Great Revival of the 1830s and became the American Party that flourished during the late-1840s and early-1850s. It got its name when members where asked the party’s positions and simply said, "I know nothing." It drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigrants and, most especially, by Catholics who were flooding the cities. The Know Nothings felt that Catholics, as followers of the Pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country. The party enjoyed strong support in the North, which witnessed large-scale Irish immigration after 1848. The American Party captured the Massachusetts legislature in 1854 and, in 1856, backed Millard Fillmore for president, who secured nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast.
The Ku Klux Klan was established in 1866 and, during Reconstruction, began a systematic campaign against freed African Americans. However, by the 1880s, it had lost its way as a racialist organization. It was revitalized in the wake of the Atlanta trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who had been falsely charged and convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old white Christian girl, in 1913. In 1915, after the Georgia governor commuted his sentence, Frank was forcibly removed by a mob of white Christians from the state penitentiary where he was being held, and lynched. Subsequently, many of those who participated in Frank’s murder came together to re-launch the Klan.
In the late-1910s, the Klan aligned with nativists, eugenicists and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) to not only promote temperance but racialist and anti-immigrant policies. As WWI hysteria mounted, ASL’s New York representative, William Anderson, equated being pro-German with being anti-American: German beer, saloons and breweries were the unnamed enemy. He harbored a deep antipathy toward Catholics, accusing the Catholic Church of mounting an “assault on law and order,” of opposing Prohibition because it was promoted by Protestants, and of engaging in “efforts to destroy [the Prohibition] victory and bring back the saloons.” Anti-Catholic antipathy contributed to the defeat of the country’s first Catholic nominee, Al Smith’s, in the 1928 presidential election.
Many other episodes of religious intolerance have taken place since the 1920s. However, John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory marked the moment in American history when anti-Catholic appeals in national elections were no longer acceptable. At the same time, the growing acceptance among Christian evangelicals of the notion of the “last days” has lead to a weird embrace of Jews and Israel and may have contributed to a moderation in anti-Semitism.
In the days before 9/11, most informed people accepted Islam as a variant within the Abrahamic tradition. However, in the aftermath of the attacks, even this convention has come under suspicion. Earlier this summer, Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor of Tennessee, claimed that Islam is a “cult” that did not deserve First Amendment protection: “You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life, or a cult -- whatever you want to call it... .” Challenged by a diverse cross-section of Tennesseans, including traditional conservatives, Ramsey has since backed away from this assertion.
If truth be told, the Manhattan Muslim Center is both a real issue and a fictitious spectacle. It is real in the sense that its construction at the designated site on Park Place would be a victory for religious tolerance. America is undergoing a profound economic and cultural realignment. Traditional white society is giving way to a truly multi-cultural America; conventional Protestantism is now sharing the public space with a significant increase in the Catholic populace (mostly Hispanics), as well as growing Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities.
But the Muslim Center story, like that of Michelle Obama’s holiday in Spain, is also a false issue, a spectacle promoting social deception. Since Obama’s victory, the Republican right has implemented a very effective wrecking-ball strategy, attempting to destroy every issue considered potentially favorable to their Democratic opponents. The Republican guiding principle has been simple: Obama and the Democrats can do no right. To realize this goal, they have done anything and everything in their power to make sure that as little as possible gets through Congress, or gets honestly assessed in the media. Sadly, the Christian Republican right appears to be succeeding while the Obama leadership remains clueless.
A century-and-a-half ago white Protestants came to accept Irish immigrants as white. While hard to imagine today, early Irish immigrants -- those who came to America in the wake of the 1848 famine -- were seen by many traditional Protestants as “n*gg*rs,” not really different from African Americans. Faced with the inevitabilities of post-Civil War modernization, old-world Protestants changed. And with it, racism changed.
The challenge that faces today’s Anglo-American Protestant descendents, those who see Muslims as “n*gg*rs,” is whether they too can change and accept America as a genuinely multi-cultural society.
*David Rosen is a culture and media critic, and author most recently of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rosen last appeared on Talkback! with Hugh Hamilton to discuss the issues addressed in this essay on Wednesday, August 25, 2010.